‘Alas’, said the mouse, ‘the world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when at last I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into’. ‘You only need to change your direction’, said the cat, and ate it up.
What Kafka’s stories have is a grotesque and gorgeous and thoroughly modern complexity. Kafka’s humour — not only not neurotic, but anti-neurotic, heroically sane — is, finally, a religious humour, but religious in the manner of Kierkegaard and Rilke and the Psalms, a harrowing spirituality against which even Ms. O’Connor’s bloody grace seems a little bit easy, the souls at stake pre-made.
And it is this, I think, that makes Kafka’s wit inaccessible to children whom our culture has trained to see jokes as entertainment and entertainment as reassurance. It’s not that students don’t ‘get’ Kafka’s humour but that we’ve taught them to see humour as something you get — the same way we’ve taught them that a self is something you just have. No wonder they cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke — that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home. It’s hard to put into words up at the blackboard, believe me. You can tell them that maybe it’s good that they don’t ‘get’ Kafka. You can ask them to imagine his art as a kind of door. To envision us readers coming up and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it, we don’t know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and pushing and kicking, etc. That, finally, the door opens… and it opens outward: we’ve been inside what we wanted all along. Das ist komisch.